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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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January 1999


Page One:
Aiding and Abetting a Land Grab
Reporters Ignore Criticisms of Administration's Urban Sprawl Policy

Reporters again are demonstrating that on environmental issues they not only fail to interview sources from both sides, they don’t even acknowledge that a side skeptical of expanding government exists. This time the issue is the Clinton administration’s "Livability Agenda," which would have the federal government buy up more land, encourage mass transit use, and subsidize people who live in cities, all in the name of stopping "urban sprawl."

Most reporters have simply assumed that everyone supports this goal, and have ignored free-market environmentalists’ concerns about government ownership of large amounts of land.

In the January 11 Washington Post, staff writer Judith Havemann reports that the "outward growth of American metropolitan areas has eaten up 1.5 million acres of farmland each year since 1960, federal figures show." In that same day’s Los Angeles Times, staff writer Judy Pasternak, also ignoring opponents of Clinton’s plan, found space to quote a White House advisor who said, "The federal government could be a better partner for local communities that are grappling with these issues."

In the next day’s New York Times, Michael Jarofsky chides the federal government for not moving fast enough: "While administration officials are promoting the proposal as a bold stroke, bringing together such traditional adversaries as environmentalists and developers, states like Maryland, Oregon, and New Jersey, and local communities and conservation groups, have been attacking problems of boundless growth for years."

But is the issue really this simple, with no independent experts arguing against federal land grabs?

Randall G. Holcombe, professor of economics at Florida State University and chairman of the Research Advisory Council of the James Madison Institute, dissents from the conventional wisdom in the forthcoming edition of PERC Reports (February, 1999).

"Most people understandably overestimate the amount of the nation that is developed because most people live in developed areas," writes Holcombe, "but developed areas in the United States, excluding Alaska, are only 6.2 percent of the nation’s total land area, and the federal government is the nation’s largest landowner." He reports that Uncle Sam owns 60 percent of Oregon’s land — "effectively placing most of Oregon’s land off-limits to developers" — and 46.9 percent of California.

Holcombe also notes that urban sprawl is in some cases beneficial: "Yards filled with trees and shrubs absorb dust and chemicals, so smaller amounts of pollutants escape into the air and water. In contrast, in dense urban areas buildings, roads, and parking lots take up a higher percentage of the land, leaving little of the natural environment to absorb pollutants."

According to Holcombe, local governments could curb traffic problems by obtaining "adequate rights-of-way for roads, limit[ing] the number of allowable curb cuts, and requir[ing] access lanes or separate access roads rather than direct access to thoroughfares."

For those such as Holcombe, who oppose green policies to expand government, the press is a hostile environment.


Page Two:
Lawyers: Hollywood's Heroes
Movies and Television Portray Noble Attorneys Fighting Evil Businesses

Heard any good lawyer jokes lately? If you have, most likely you didn’t hear them in a movie or on a prime time television show. While the general public tends to disdain trial lawyers, Hollywood loves them. A Civil Action, co-produced by Robert Redford and starring John Travolta, is the latest in a line of movies this decade in which heroic trial lawyers attempt to bring down evil businessmen or other powerful scoundrels.

The movie is based on an actual case in which residents of Woburn, Massachusetts sued Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace for allegedly polluting local wells with trichloroethylene (TCE), which they claimed led to a cluster of leukemia cases in the town. The movie portrays personal injury attorney Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta) as bankrupting his small law firm in an effort to "seek justice" for the eight Woburn families, with Grace and its attorneys given the role of lead villains.

In the movie, there is no question but that Grace — and probably Beatrice — were guilty. Grace tries to intimidate its employees into not testifying; its lead attorney is without scruples as he uses underhanded attempts to get the case dismissed; and Beatrice is portrayed as getting out of paying the Woburn families only because no one actually saw Beatrice employees dumping hazardous chemicals.

The real situation was a bit different. "When personal injury lawyers set about identifying the cause of their clients’ illnesses, they use sophisticated methodology," writes science journalist Michael Fumento in the December 28 Forbes. "First they identify someone with deep pockets. Then they find something that Deep Pockets did that a jury might accept as the cause of the illnesses." This, according to Fumento, was what happened in the actual Woburn case.

Fumento identifies "two good reasons the Woburn leukemias, even if they were due to pollution, had nothing to do with Grace’s pollution. First, it is now widely believed that TCE is not a human carcinogen. Next, even if it were, Grace’s TCE could not have migrated to the wells in question in time to cause an effect." In fact, two years before Grace opened its Woburn machine shop, the city was warned by an engineering firm that a nearby aquifer was too polluted to be used for drinking-water wells. The city ignored the report and dug the wells, but Beatrice and Grace were the ones sued because they had the most money.

The political left knows it has a propaganda winner with A Civil Action, and it plans to make the most of the movie. The Manhattan Institute’s Walter Olson reports, in the December 23 Wall Street Journal, that environmentalists were planning tie-in events, while "The Progressive is hoping the movie...will revive trial lawyers’ image and fuel public anger at big business."

But this isn’t the first movie in this decade that inflates the image of lawyers. To cite just a few examples: In The Rainmaker, Matt Damon plays a young lawyer who forces a giant insurance company into bankruptcy because it denied his clients’ claim. In The Pelican Brief, Julia Roberts plays a law student who uncovers a big-money conspiracy to murder two Supreme Court Justices. And in A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays a young Navy attorney who takes on a powerful, but corrupt, Marine general played by Jack Nicholson.

To be sure, many movie trial lawyers are portrayed as flawed human beings. Travolta’s character in A Civil Action, for instance, starts out looking as materialistic as any big business owner; he loves his expensive suits and his fancy car. But as the movie progresses, we see that deep down he’s an idealist who will go to the mat for what is right. As with so many movie trial lawyers, he finds redemption through his work.

A similar transformation occurred with Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men. When the movie begins, he is a cynical military lawyer biding his time until he can leave the service. By the time the movie ends, he is on an idealistic crusade for the truth, which Jack Nicholson’s character famously insists he can’t handle. Usually, the only irredeemable bad-guy lawyers in the movies are those defending businesses or tied to organized crime. Those going after a business or some other powerful entity are presented as doing the Lord’s work.

The entertainment world’s love for trial lawyers cannot be merely attributed to movie versions of John Grisham’s novels, either. On prime time television, the legal profession is portrayed as far more virtuous than business. A 1997 Media Research Center study found that lawyer characters committed only one percent of TV crimes. Business characters, on the other hand, committed 29.2 percent of all TV crimes (including 30.4 percent of all TV murders).

This was over three times more than characters in any other occupation, including career criminals, who were the perps in only 9.7 percent of prime time crimes. Big Businessmen were especially bad. Fully 15.6 percent of all characters who owned big businesses were criminals, and almost half — 46 percent — cheated in their work to get ahead.

TV lawyers, on the other hand, were more upstanding than TV doctors (who committed 4.1 percent of the TV crimes), government officials (3.9 percent), police officers (3.5 percent), students (2.5 percent), members of the military (2.1 percent), blue collar workers (1.8 percent), scientists (1.4 percent), and teachers (1.2 percent). Hollywood even portrayed itself as more prone to crime than lawyers: TV entertainers committed 2.3 percent of TV crimes, a small number, but more than twice the percentage of crimes committed by lawyers on television.

As in the movies, some TV lawyer characters are rascals who, at least at the beginning of the show, you wouldn’t want your daughter to date. But by the end of the show, they’ve been ennobled by their profession, especially if they’ve taken down a big business. Lawyering, as it is portrayed in the movies or on television, is almost inherently character-building.

Trial lawyers may be the butt of much humor, but if they want to find solace, they need look no further than the local movie house or the living room television set.


Page TwoA:
Taxes and Savings

On December 29, ABC’s Nightline looked into, as host Aaron Brown put it, "how it is that we are wealthier than ever and saving virtually nothing."

Correspondent Michel McQueen noted that high stock prices have people feeling richer, and so they’re saving less. A market correction, she reported, could leave people with very little. After her report, Brown interviewed former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Vince Passaro of Harper’s magazine.

No one during the entire half hour spoke about the effect high taxes have on personal savings. With the federal government garnering an increasing amount of revenues and running a surplus, would it be prudent to cut taxes to bol-ster savings? It didn’t occur to anyone at Nightline to ask.


On December 31, NBC Nightly News looked back at "Fleecing of America" stories from the previous twelve months, and in doing so showed again why "Fleecing," along with "Your Money" on ABC World News Tonight, is one of the best news segments on network television.

"No matter how you look at it, it’s still an outhouse at the Delaware Water Gap National Park in Pennsylvania," said NBC’s Brian Williams, reminding viewers of the $770,000 the government spent on the boondoggle. Williams also told viewers of a March report about the security detail for Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry: Fifteen bodyguards at a cost of $1.1 million. He reported that taxpayers lose $1.5 billion a year to food-stamp fraud, including stamps sent to more than 26,000 dead people, "whose survivors still reap the benefits of this widespread fleecing," and that, after Hurricane Bonnie, North Carolina residents were again using federal money to rebuild in hurricane-heavy areas.

Kudos to NBC News for showing some healthy journalistic skepticism about government programs.


Hailing "Compassionate Conservatism"
Guest Editorial, Tim Graham

If reporters trodding the Campaign 2000 beat spend 1999 recycling the last two months of 1998, we’re in store for more media-driven promotion of a new and improved brand of Republican. The Weekly Standard parodied (but only slightly) the media fad with the headline "George W. Bush Is Better Than God: Has Presidency Locked Up in 2000" by "The Entire Washington Press Corps."

The parody has the press writing: "Gov. Bush taps the microphone. Then he utters it: ‘Compassionate Conservatism.’ For a second, all is silent, as the crowd absorbs the majesty of the concept. Then...bedlam! Ecstasy! The reporters are going crazy! Here he is, in the flesh! The un-Bauer! The un-Gingrich! The un-Buchanan! A Republican we can all approve of!"

Isn’t it strange to see the same reporters who choked on the father’s "Message: I Care" in 1992, carrying the son’s "compassionate conservative" banner six years later? Before the election results had even begun to trickle in, the networks were touting the new GOP begun by George W. Bush and his brother Jeb. On the morning of Election Day, NBC’s Tim Russert started the ball rolling about how the "moderate governors" would lead Republicans to the electoral promised land with "compassionate conservatism."

But none of these pundits parsed the final election results to see if their theory matched reality.

Yes, 23 of 25 incumbent GOP governors won. But the same pattern held in Congress: 26 of 29 Senate incumbents won, and only six House incumbents out of 402 who ran were defeated, for a re-election rate of 98.5 percent, which edged the previous high of 98.3 in 1988. For all the media talk about governors teaching Congress how to win, nobody noticed that House incumbents had a better victory percentage than the governors.

Why tout the governors? One could argue that many governor’s races were sewn up early, while many Senate races were nail-biters and the networks (except for CNN) pay almost zero attention to House races. One also could argue that Congress is a regular network beat where reporters have been beating up on the Republican "revolution" for four years running, while the governors only receive an occasional national media parachute drop, usually in connection with bubbling presidential ambitions, as with Bush, the Sequel. Most obviously, the media talked up the governors because the governors were tearing down their congressional colleagues and trying to transform the party’s pose from Reaganite anti-statism to go-along, get-along "pragmatic centrism."

Ironically, many of these newly designated "moderate" governors used to be demonized as too conservative by the national media. ABC’s Jack Smith summed up Jeb Bush’s race against Lawton Chiles in October of 1994: "A Democratic activist constrained by the voters’ desire here for little more than safe streets and low taxes, versus a radical conservative with virtually no experience in governing." Just two years ago, then-CBS reporter Linda Douglass downgraded Michigan Governor John Engler’s chances as a running mate for Bob Dole: "Engler wants the job, he’s very conservative, he’s a passionate campaigner. But he may be too conservative to appeal to the women voters, for example, who are going to have trouble with a totally conservative Republican ticket."

If the networks had done any homework on the governors, they might have noticed that in his last report card on the governors’ fiscal records, the Cato Institute’s Stephen Moore noted that these Republican governors in large states are using the current economic good times (and resulting revenue boosts) to strike poses both "moderate" and conservative — increasing state spending by five or six percent a year at the same time they’re offering supply-side tax cuts or simple tax rebates.

If the congressional conservatives had advocated tax cuts this year as forcefully as the governors have in the last four years, in addition to spending away the surplus, the media wouldn’t have cheered their "moderation," but attacked them as fiscally irresponsible water boys for the rich. If any one of these governors had been able to propose that agenda from the White House in 1998, they would have faced the same catcalls. That ought to be a sobering reminder to the current GOP media darlings with an eye on the 2000 prize.

Rich Noyes


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